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Racial Disproportionality in U.S. State Prisons: Accounting for the Effects of Racial and Ethnic Differences in Criminal Involvement, Arrests, Sentencing, and Time Served

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An Erratum to this article was published on 21 July 2017

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An important indicator of discrimination in the criminal justice system is the degree to which race differences in arrest account for racial disproportionality in prisons (“accountability”). A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study raised concerns by reporting low and declining estimates of accountability. Our improved measure accounts for unreported Hispanic arrestees. We measure accountability at intermediate stages, including commitments to prison and time served. We also use victim reports to extend accountability from arrest to differential involvement in violent crimes.


Our methods utilize information on self-reported racial identity of Hispanic prisoners to provide more accurate comparison with the race of arrestees. We also assess accountability for 42 individual states and 4 regions.


Our national estimate of accountability is close to previous estimates and much higher than those in the NAS report. Accountability is high for the serious violent crimes of murder and rape, and low for drug trafficking, drug possession, weapons, and aggravated assault, which involve more discretion in arrest, labeling and charging.


Our more accurate accountability results contradict the NAS report of low and declining accountability. Regional accountability estimates show no consistently stronger or weaker region. We also show a corrected national estimate of the ratio of black-to-white incarceration-rates has dropped from 6.8 in 1990 to 4.7 in 2011, an important correction to concerns of increasing discrimination. Reports of offenders’ race by victims and arrestees’ race are found to be close, supporting use of arrest as an indicator of involvement in violent crimes.

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Change history

  • 21 July 2017

    An erratum to this article has been published.


  1. While the crime-type definitions in arrest and prison are reasonably consistent, we recognize that individuals arrested for a particular crime type may have been sentenced for a different crime type as a result of prosecutorial discretion, evidentiary issues, and plea bargains. In addition, when offenders are arrested or incarcerated for multiple crime types, a hierarchy is utilized corresponding to seriousness (UCR) and length of maximum sentence (NCRP) to identify the “controlling” offense.

  2. The NAS report quotes estimates in terms of prison disproportionality not accounted for by arrest, which is simply the complement of the amount that is accounted for by arrest, the measure used in this paper. We have simply converted their reported results to the complementary estimate in order to maintain consistency within this paper.

  3. Our numerical estimates are all based on the percent of prison disproportionality that is accounted for by arrest differences. The values quoted for 2004 and 2008 based on the work of Baumer and Tonry and Melewski are the complements (1-X) of the estimates reported in the NAS report, which are estimates of the degree to which arrest does not account for prison disproportionality; we make this change in order to retain consistency with the uses in this paper.

  4. NPS data were adjusted to account for missing data due to Hispanic origin and race not known: (1) In 1990, missing data were assessed by state revealing 17 states in which some inmates with unknown race were Hispanics. The race of these inmates (19,900) were estimated using self-reported race of inmates in the National Inmate Surveys (NIS). The remainder of the missing data (8800) were estimated using the BJS bulletin “Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1990,” to account for missing data for American Indians, Asians and Pacific Islanders (Stephan 1992). The remainder were allocated based on the revised racial distribution. (2) In 2011, the NPS included approximately 214,700 Hispanics and 10,300 inmates classified as unknown race or some other race (not among the accepted OMB racial categories). Within each state, Hispanics were first allocated to racial categories based on inmate self-identification in NIS. Inmates with unknown race were then allocated based on the revised racial distributions.

  5. The states included are AL, AK, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, GA, IA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, NC, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI, WV and WY.

  6. The majority of NCRP records had valid data on race (87%). Data were estimated for 82,777 Hispanic inmates (6.7% of all inmates, concentrated in AZ, CA, and NY); for 5482 non-Hispanic inmates (0.5% of all inmates); and for 63,191 inmates without race or Hispanic origin (5.7% of all inmates, concentrated in CA, CO and TX).

  7. The calculation is \({\text{X}}_{\text{j}} = \sum\nolimits_{\text{I}} {{\text{X}}_{\text{ij}} * {\text{F}}_{\text{ij}} }\).

  8. The calculation is \({\text{X = X}}_{\text{i}} *\left( {{{{\text{N}}_{\text{j}} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{{\text{N}}_{\text{j}} } {\sum\nolimits_{\text{j}} {{\text{N}}_{\text{j}} } }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {\sum\nolimits_{\text{j}} {{\text{N}}_{\text{j}} } }}} \right)\), where Nj is the prison population of state j.

  9. The ratio of the total prison population to new court commitments for each year is an indicator of time expected to be served. During periods of stability in admissions and releases (which was true of 2011), it will equal the actual time to be served by an admission cohort. Unlike traditional measures of time served based on time to first release, this measure includes time served by prisoners who have not been released, by those who may never be released, and those who have been recommitted as conditional release violators and serve additional time on the original sentence. (See Blumstein and Beck 1999).

  10. We included the border states of Delaware and Maryland in the North, rather than in the South where they are often placed, partly because they are similar to states in the North, and partly to achieve a better balance in the number of states in each region.


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We much appreciate the very helpful assistance provided by Susan Foster Logoyda and Gursmeep Hundal while they were studying for a Master of Science degree in Public Policy and Management at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University.


The analysis and conclusions presented here are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Bureau of Justice Statistics or the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Correspondence to Alfred Blumstein.



See Tables 11, 12, 13, and 14.

Table 11 Xij values for 13 states in the South, 2011
Table 12 Xij Values for nine states in the Northeast, 2011
Table 13 Xij values for 10 states in the Midwest, 2011
Table 14 Xij values for 10 states in the West, 2011

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Beck, A.J., Blumstein, A. Racial Disproportionality in U.S. State Prisons: Accounting for the Effects of Racial and Ethnic Differences in Criminal Involvement, Arrests, Sentencing, and Time Served. J Quant Criminol 34, 853–883 (2018).

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